FX Excursions

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Mumbai: Mumbai On The Mend

by Patrick Adams

Feb 1, 2009
2009 / February 2009

It was mid-afternoon on New Year’s Day, and the streets of Colaba, Mumbai’s fashionable tourist district, were throbbing with life, all color and verve. Vendors hawked their wares — jewelry and incense, garlands and tea — while taxis trolled the streets for a fare, Hindi music blaring from their radios. And everywhere, people.

I had arrived in town almost six weeks after the Mumbai terrorist attacks, a three-day ordeal that left more than 170 people dead — and this city of 17 million, India’s largest, seemed to have already moved on. There were cricket matches on the sprawling fields of the Oval Maidan. Couples walked arm-in-arm down Chowpatti Beach. And at the famous Victoria Railway Station, now called Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, where the terrorists had begun their murderous spree, thousands of commuters poured out of trains on their way to work, many of them smiling at the sight of my camera.

“People avoided the station for about four days,” said my guide, Murali, a native Mumbaiker who had agreed to take me on a walking tour of the attack areas. “But after that they were back — around a million every day.” Murali quoted the Persian philosopher Omar Khayyám: “The moving finger writes, and, having writ, moves on. Nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.”

“Understand?” he asked. “That’s precisely how Hindus see it, how they deal with it. You accept your destiny, and you move on.”

On the morning of Nov. 26, it was Murali’s destiny, and that of his group of French tourists, to finish up brunch at Indigo, possibly the poshest of Mumbai’s fine dining establishments, near the luxurious Taj Mahal Palace & Tower, just as the first shots were fired. “I thought they were firecrackers,” he recalled. “And then we hopped on the bus and left for the airport. I didn’t find out what had actually happened until my sister called from San Francisco and told me to turn on CNN.”

When Murali and I returned to the Taj that day, we encountered the layers of new security introduced with the Dec. 21 re-opening of the hotel’s tower wing. (The 105-year-old Palace next door, gutted by fire during the 60-hour siege, was still closed, and will remain so until September.) Police barricades had been set up several hundred yards from the tower’s entrance, extending past the Gateway of India, a massive arch on the edge of the harbor. What had been a popular public gathering place before the attacks — with spectacular views of the sunrise — was now all but empty.

After passing through metal detectors manned by armed guards, we arrived at the hotel entrance — with more metal detectors and more armed guards, as well as a policeman with a high-powered rifle hidden behind a sandbag bunker. I was required to put my camera case through an X-ray baggage scanner, and then I was patted down for good measure. When I asked Murali if any of this had been in place before the attacks, he laughed and shook his head. “No way,” he said. “Anybody could walk right in.”

But inside the lobby, an immaculate, marble-floored space with a large Christmas tree in the center, it was hard to believe it had all happened. The lobby had been beautifully restored, and guests milled about, reading newspapers and drinking coffee. Even at the pool, where several people had been killed, waiters in sharp white coats served drinks to guests lounging in recliners, soaking up the sun.

The Taj was far from full at just 62 percent occupancy, but a sense of normalcy prevailed throughout the place, and there was a feeling among the staff members that people, Americans included, would be back soon. “I can’t tell you how many messages of support and solidarity we’ve received from all over the world,” said Kirti Dhingra, spokesperson for the hotel. “It’s truly touching. You should have seen the re-opening ceremony. This place was full of people, and just about all of them had tears in their eyes.”

Dhingra added tha t in addition to the 268 guestrooms in the tower, nine of the hotel’s restaurants were up and running at capacity, including most recently the two-floor Wasabi. The first contemporary Japanese eatery in Mumbai, the restaurant is under the culinary direction of the famous “Iron Chef” Masaharu Morimoto.

“It’s been a huge hit here,” said Dhingra, “and they’ve raced to re-open it on the top two floors of the tower.”

Murali and I took a car to the Trident portion of the Oberoi Hotel in Nariman Point, a five-minute ride away. Like the Taj, the Trident had reopened on Dec. 21, while the Oberoi’s main area remained closed. When we pulled up to the curb — cars are no longer permitted up the driveway — armed guards inspected the vehicle and towering doormen in white suits and black turbans bowed as we got out.

Here, too, security had been beefed up in visible ways: metal detectors, baggage scanners, armed guards and a pat-down as you pass through the door — polite yet thorough. “And that’s just the security that you can see,” said Kanan Udeshi, communications manager for the Oberoi Group. She had met me for tea in the Trident’s sleek, high-ceilinged lobby, which overlooks the steel-gray waters of Back Bay.

“What happened was horrible, but could it happen in New York? In London? In Madrid? Of course,” she said. “So we’re adjusting, and we know that business travelers and corporate groups will continue to come.” As a matter of fact, she said, several groups had called to find out if they could keep their meeting plans in place for early December, before the hotel was scheduled to re-open. “They understand that this was an isolated incident. And former guests, even many of those who were with us during the attack, have said they plan to return — that they will return.”

The sun was setting, the moon a faint quarter-slice in the sky, by the time we made it to the Leopold Café and Bar, where backpackers and locals alike downed frosty pints of beer and snapped pictures of the bullet holes in the fractured glass façade. “This is where the grenade exploded,” said Farhang Jehani, the Leopold’s owner, as he moved a chair to reveal a divot in the concrete floor. “And you can make your donation here,” he added, tapping a plastic bin full of bills collected for the two waiters who were killed when gunmen opened fire from across the street.

Like Mumbai itself, the Leopold is a soft target, and the extra security provided after the attack — three policemen posted outside — did little to change that. But given the crowd on hand that night, patrons of the century-old, open-air hangout don’t seem to care. It was standing room only when we arrived, and it’s been that way since the Leopold re-opened, just 48 hours after the standoff at the Taj.

“We came really close to canceling our trip after what happened,” said a woman at the next table. She had come to India from New York with her husband and two teenaged daughters, and their three-week trip was nearly over. “I’m so glad we didn’t. We’ve had such a wonderful time. And this place [Mumbai] is just magical, you know? It’s alive.”

The day I left, the stock market, which had collapsed in September, was up 2.5 percent; and on the newspaper business pages the pundits were predicting a prosperous, albeit very bumpy, 2009. Economic growth might drop to as low as 7 percent, they said — well below India’s 8.8 percent average over the last five years — but in light of a global recession and the events of late November, that wasn’t so bad.

Of course, it wasn’t clear what kind of impact the attack — dubbed “26/11” for Nov. 26 — would have on that growth. But if the assault on the shimmering icons of India’s financial capital was meant to undermine its blazing path to urbanization and frighten tourists from its world-class hotels, the effort has fallen far short. Mumbai remains ascendant, as does India as a whole. Over the next five years, the government plans to double investment in infrastructure, pumping in $475 billion to modernize airports and roads, improve sanitation, conserve water and extend cellular phone access as far as it can go.

One rather illustrative undertaking is the 950-mile road and rail network aimed at linking Mumbai with the capital, New Delhi. The project is slated for completion in 2013 at a cost of approximately $100 billion. And filling its roads will be millions of Indian-made Nanos, the new and very affordable family car from Tata Motors. That’s the same Tata that owns the Taj, the glittering legacy of the great industrialist Jamshedji Tata, beloved for planting the first luxury hotel open to Indians smack in the middle of a then British Bombay. More than a century later, the Taj still stands — scarred but healing, a symbol of defiance and a sight, like the city around it, for the world to behold.

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